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Pacing the Cage

Self-isolate. Social-distance. Shelter in place.

As strange phrases define our necessary response to slowing the spread of infections, I feel the weight of these words: novel terms appropriate for a novel virus.

Some of my comfortably-at-home, successful and introverted friends are coping well with these new realities of quarantine and solitude. They share on social media how incredibly clean their house has become: how good it has been to read books again. I have heard reference to this time as a kind of retreat.

In contrast, on my solitude walks in the almost empty downtown core of my city, I discover the remaining folks: the struggling vulnerable and marginalized who will bear the brunt of this tragedy. I have deep respect for friends who are organizing food and hot meals as so many services have closed down. We donate to the food bank. And I witness on the BBC news, the poor of India desperately trying to return to the villages they left previously for survival and for what they hoped was the new opportunity of the cities. We are told it will be horrific when the virus visits the refugee camps of the displaced.

I think of other dedicated friends who, behind protective gear, are caring for a growing number of admissions at our hospital. They uneasily prepare for the coming surge of COVID-19 illness. I think of those thousands with feverish skin and clogged lungs who will not be able to live through this time.

And me. I am left looking out the window at distant hills. We settle into what will be a long season of spring unlike any other in my lifetime. We have just begun this vigil.

I try to reach out to others. I am aware of all those that I cannot touch and hug or meet over a coffee. Alas, it is sanitary and acceptable to virtually touch through a computer screen: a screen that also receives these typed thoughts. A hundred or so people have joined small group sessions this week that I have tried to guide with gentleness and wisdom. More sessions and other collaborations are emerging in response to a sensed need for intentional, disciplined conversation and connection. I am grateful for the honesty and brokenhearted and moved to hear the stories. We laugh, too.

I’ve seeded basil, tomatoes, and arugula in containers inside of sunny patio doors. Spinach, peas, radishes and broccoli seeds now lie in the garden; I wonder if I’ve guessed wrong to dig in seeds so early as a cold front pushes down for a few days. How is the soil of my heart? What will germinate from this dormancy of distance? What will warm days feel like in this creeping coldness of distrust for strangers?

The memory of tigers mingles with gardening and loneliness tonight. I was a manager at a zoo for several years. These two captive Panthera tigris tigris we housed would pace the wire fence of their enclosure. It was a daily habit, marked clearly by their wide paws on the packed earth of their repetitive pattern. We accepted them at our zoo to live out their earthly life with us. They were beyond the age of being captively bred as part of global program to save the species. They were well fed and comfortable. The zookeepers tried to provide some distractions and stimulation. They had each other for many years until one died just before the other: of loneliness perhaps. I sensed their despair and frustration in spite of needing nothing, save the freedom to leave their cage. Save the reality that they were a danger to others and others were a danger to them. It was safest to keep everyone separate. I sense my own feelings tonight.

I turn to familiar poetic words as ‘pacing the cage’ activates the memory of song.

Bruce Cockburn’s lyrics have supplied me with decades of vocabulary for my inner experience and my range of bewilderment, compassion, anger and ecstasy. I find this live recording as I write this stream of thoughts and reconsider the words as Bruce sings and strums.

It’s as if the thing were written in the constitution of the age…

Pacing the Cage

Sunset is an angel weeping

Holding out a bloody sword

No matter how I squint I cannot

Make out what it’s pointing toward

Sometimes you feel like you’ve lived too long

Days drip slowly on the page

You catch yourself

Pacing the cage

I’ve proven who I am so many times

The magnetic strip’s worn thin

And each time I was someone else

And every one was taken in

Hours chatter in high places

Stir up eddies in the dust of rage

Set me to pacing the cage

I never knew what you all wanted

So I gave you everything

All that I could pillage

All the spells that I could sing

It’s as if the thing were written

In the constitution of the age

Sooner or later you’ll wind up

Pacing the cage

Sometimes the best map will not guide you

You can’t see what’s ’round the bend

Sometimes the road leads through dark places

Sometimes the darkness is your friend

Today these eyes scan bleached-out land

For the coming of the outbound stage

Pacing the cage

Pacing the cage

-Bruce Cockburn


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